New ideas are fuelled by diversity, observation, curiosity and humour.
Loosely speaking, we are creatures of habit. We tend to do the same things over and over. We take the same route to work and eat at the same places. Even in our free time, we hang out at our favourite spots. Routine makes it hard for us to look at situations in a new light. Here are ideas on how to breakaway from our comfort zone.
Hang out with diverse people. We tend to surround ourselves with people that are like us. After all, having more in common leads to easily flowing conversations. Resisting this affinity could broaden our insight. More-of-the-same can help to confirm assumptions, but doesn’t expose us to new thinking. Spending time with people of different backgrounds and interests, does. We can use this new understanding to solve long-standing challenges.
Observe closely. You are conducting a survey to understand how people react to a certain stimulus. You ask questions and analyze the results. This practice is well established and it does have a legitimate place. The problem is that in certain cases, people think they’d react in some way while in reality they end up doing something else. This is when observing is better than asking. Seeing what people do in a certain situation instead of asking them what they’d do, will give you more accurate answers.
Ask and be willing to listen. In situations where simply asking can give us the insight we need, be sure to listen. In some cases, we will be trying to convince ourselves that something is a good idea or a bad idea. We try to convince ourselves because the outcome is beneficial to us in some way, which impedes our capacity to stay objective. So when we ask, we really need to listen for what comes back and we need to put it in the right context. Pay special attention to answers that contrast with your beliefs; those are the ones that we tend to carelessly dismiss.
Be curious. Be open to new ideas. New way of doing things. New routes to get to where you’re going. Design your life to encourage serendipity. It may at times feel like you’re wasting your time. You may feel like your way is better. And in many cases it will be. That’s where the challenge is: seek to learn new ways of dong something, but don’t waste your time relearning something you do well already. The best areas for keeping an open mind is when trying to solve a long-standing problem. You may realize that a newbie’s simplification of your complex world, is, in fact, the wiser course of action.
Relax. Curiosity, discovery and learning tends to happen more when we’re not trying to arrive to a specific outcome. Exploration requires that we try things that will fail. Taking things lightly and with some humour encourages failure by avoiding judgement. This helps people be okay with asking dumb questions and taking risks. Without dumb questions and risks, we’ll stay on the safe and predictable side, making it impossible for us to have new and hopefully better ideas.
For idea validation, use assholes and realists
You’ve gone through the idea validation checklist and discovered that the terrain to start developing your idea is fertile. You’ve been working at a 10-slide pitch deck and it’s pretty solid. You did your homework so you’re fairly confident that your assumptions are rooted in facts. You also have 3-year financial projections that you think are interesting enough to investors. It seems you’re ready to go all-in, until you have this casual chat with a friend of a friend that has no issues telling you that people simply won’t use what you’re about to build.
Now you’re faced with a dilemma. Your research gives you confidence, but a part of you simply can’t ignore the nonchalant, commonsensical warning sign. The good news is that that you’re having this dilemma now and not after you invested time and money into something that didn’t fly. So it’s extremely important that you play devil’s advocate in the early stages of idea validation.
The people best positioned to challenge the idea are those that have no vested interest in any particular outcome. Here are some traits of people that will help prevent wasting time, money and a gargantuous amount of mental energy.
1. Assholes (but not negative). They’re not bad people. It’s those people that may appear to be assholes because they’re not into smoothing things before telling you what they think about something. No-nonsense, no beating around the bush. Watch out for negative, glass-is-half-empty personalities that are likely to shut down anything by default, missing legitimate opportunities along the way. Find people that will react positively—and even enthusiastically—when presented with real opportunities.
2. Realists (not optimists). Optimists are great people to have around because they’re just so much fun. The dangerous part is that they tend to think that anything could work, provided that [insert some rationale here like “enough effort is devoted” or “the right people see it at the right time”, etc.] While this is an encouraging way to look at challenges, it will do little to save you from engaging with something that isn’t real.
3. No spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, etc. They love you and because they love you they think you can accomplish anything. In easy-to-read, jumping-off-a-cliff situations, they will prevent you from doing something stupid because they love you. But in complex situations where the outcome depends on non-linear cause-and-effect factors, knowing what’s right and wrong for you may not be that clear cut. To be safe, be wary of those that think you are special in any way.
4. No software developers. This one applies to software developers because it is based on my own experience, but I suspect it applies to any kind of people that build and develop the idea. Developers have, for some reason, a strong tendency to say that they can do anything. And it’s true; at least good developers can build pretty much anything you ask them to build. So they’re not really thinking whether an idea is real because they’re focused on whether something is feasible. And in most cases feasibility can be arrived to, so they will tend to be supportive. Engage developers after you have validated the core concept using assholes and realists.
Is your idea worth pursuing?
Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether you should pursue an idea. Remember, it takes the same amount of effort to develop a bad idea as it does to develop a good one. So be selective.
1. What’s your idea? Start by clearly defining what your idea is about. If you can’t explain it in two sentences, others may have trouble understanding it, so spend some time refining it until it becomes clear and concise.
2. What problem does it fix? Here’s another point where being concise is important. The more people experience the problem your idea solves, the more likely you are to succeed. There’s also the case where, even though a problem might only affect a small portion of the population, if your business model is highly lucrative, this may matter less.
3. How is this problem being addressed now? What does the current process look like? Are there middlemen in the supply chain? Think how Amazon made book buying cheaper and easier. Think how iTunes made music buying cheaper and easier. How does your idea make the current process cheaper and easier?
4. How many direct competitors are there? A bit of an obvious concern. The more competitors, the tougher it will be to stand out. If competition is unavoidable, think of ways in which you can dodge some of it by tweaking a few things about your approach.
5. Will it be cheaper than existing solutions? Very important. Coming up with a new way of doing something that can already be done more cheaply is going to make it really hard for you to gain traction.
6. Will it be easier than existing solutions? Similar to #5 above but a bit less important perhaps. People may trade higher pain for lower cost but it depends on the degree of added pain and the resulting savings. The safest thing is to come up with something cheaper and easier.
7. How does it make money? Very important unless you are in the business of building databases that you can later monetize. Explain how you are planning to make money. Of course, keep it realistic by making sure that: a) whomever will be paying is willing to pay; and b) the price point makes sense.
8. Does your idea disrupt an established supply chain or model? Uber disrupted the taxicab business. Airbnb is disrupting temporary accommodation. Email disrupted the postal service. Is your idea disrupting an established industry? Which one? When disrupting established models you could be faced with litigation and other setbacks. Be sure you are ready to deal with this with enough money and lawyers.
9. Is this a regulated sector or industry? Regulated industries are tougher to get into. This is why MOOCS are having a hard time disrupting education, 23andMe is having a hell of a time dealing with the FDA and healthcare disruption is only happening on the fringes, closer to fitness than medicine. If you’re trying to disrupt regulated industries, arm yourself with patience, lawyers and enough money for a long runway.
10 . What is the total size of the market? Unless you can get celebrity endorsements or bloggers to talk about you, it will take time for your idea to penetrate a small portion of the market. Make sure that the total possible revenue you can expect to make is big enough to make things interesting even when you only own 1% of the total market.
11. How would you let people know about the new offering? “Build it and they will come” is not only oblivious and naïve, but it’s a detrimental to say the least. Be realistic about what you are going to do to let people know about your shiny new thing. This is your marketing strategy.
12. What other advantages do you have? Are there other advantages you have that would make you a better provider of your idea? For example, do you have experience in the field you are trying to play? Do you have any special knowledge that is hard for others to obtain? In this particular point, keep in mind that knowledge can be acquired (or hired) but direct experience or connections are harder to replicate.
(Photo by Melanie Jacques www.melaniejacques.com)